If you’ve been “feelin’ your oats” as the saying goes, Dr. Shengmin Sang, lead scientist for functional foods at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, might know why.
Sang’s studies of the bioactive components in oats offer evidence that phytochemicals found only in oats, known as avenanthramides, are helpful in combating colon cancer and inflammation. Sang also reports that the metabolites that are produced after the chemicals are broken down in the digestive tract remain bioactive. Metabolites are the small biochemical molecules that enter the bloodstream after food is digested, and are responsible for many biological functions.
Researchers have known for years that oats and other whole grains are heart-healthy and help in preventing an array of diseases, but the molecular mechanisms responsible remain largely a mystery. Even more of a mystery is how or why individuals respond differently to the same foods. Sang is one of a handful of scientists in food chemistry laboratories around the world who are using functional food studies to investigate these mechanisms.
His report on oat metabolites was delivered at a symposium he helped organize, “Physicochemical Properties and Biological Functionality of Oats,” at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Dallas, March 16 – 20. The Quaker Oats Center of Excellence funded the symposium.
Sang also reported differences on the metabolism of avenanthramides by different human gut microbiota. Some of the digestive organisms he studied produced anti-cancer metabolites, and others did not, which suggests that the kind of flora that colonize one’s digestive tract can affect how much an individual may benefit from oats, he said.
One of Sang’s overarching aims in this, as well as other studies on whole grains, is to identify metabolic markers that can be detected in blood samples. Such markers would give epidemiologists a clearer picture of the link between diet and disease, and, in time, could lead to personalized nutritional recommendations for consumers.
“Based on what we know now, we can only recommend that everyone should eat whole grains and whole oats. We can’t yet give specific dietary recommendations to individuals, but in the future, we will,” Sang said.
Personalized nutrition is one of the goals of Sang’s functional foods lab, located at the Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies, which is housed at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, N.C. The Center is administered by the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at North Carolina A&T.
In addition to Sang’s functional foods laboratory, the Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies also houses laboratories specializing in food safety and food engineering.